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The Martha Mitchell effect: the real overcomes the imagination

The Martha Mitchell effect: the real overcomes the imagination

June 12, 2024

If we talk about someone who thinks they are trying to kill him, that the police have his phone tapped or that he knows a truth that other people want to silence, it is easy for us to think that it is about someone with some kind of delusional disorder .

But sometimes some of these people are counting something real that ends up being mistakenly considered as a product of the mind and imagination. We are talking about cases where there has been the Martha Mitchell effect whose name is based on a true story.

  • You may be interested: "Delirious disorder (paranoid psychosis): causes, symptoms and treatment"

Delirium in psychopathology

To understand the Martha Mitchell effect well, it is necessary first of all to reflect on what a delirium is.


Delirium is one of the most studied symptoms in what refers to the psychopathology part of the content of thought. It is understood as such or those ideas and false beliefs and unlikely that the subject holds with total conviction despite the evidence may be against them.

Are extravagant ideas and beliefs , sustained by the subject with great vehemence, lived as true and unchangeable that cause in the individual a great discomfort and anguish.

The contents of delirium are important, since they are closely linked at a symbolic level with the patient's fears and vital experiences, as well as cultural aspects that have influenced him to have a certain mentality. Some examples include the idea of being persecuted or controlled , that the phenomena that occur are directed towards the subject, that our partner is unfaithful to us, that someone is totally in love with us, that we have deformities or that we are dead and in decomposition or that those around us are impostors who pretend to be our peers


How does delirium originate?

Why delusions arise is something that does not yet have a clear answer. However, some of the main hypotheses state that it is a cognitive elaboration and more or less structured which aims to respond to an anomalous perception. The cognitive process carried out by those who suffer from them may be biased, but it may also be normal.

That makes in some cases establish a limit between the real and the delirious can be more complex than it appears. And is that although its characteristics are usually visible and are strange from the outside, the truth is that if the facts are observed from the perception of the subject can have coherence and logic (After all it is not impossible for someone to watch us to rob us or to be unfaithful, for example). That is why it is possible to identify a real event as delirium. It's what happens in the so-called Martha Mitchell effect.


  • Related article: "The 12 most curious and shocking types of delusions"

The Martha Mitchell effect

Martha Mitchell effect is understood as the situation in which professionals in psychology and / or psychiatry come to the conclusion that a specific event reported by the patient is the product of delirium or an altered state of consciousness, this event being true.

The events in question usually refer to events with low probability of occurrence, implausible and with a high level of implausibility, little shared by the social environment and with emphasis on the perception of the phenomenon as something self-referential and directed towards the person. Clear examples of this are the ideas of being persecuted by criminal gangs, being watched by the government or having information of great importance that someone wants to silence.

Martha Mitchell and the Watergate case

The name of this effect is based on a real case. Martha Mitchell was the wife of state Attorney General John Mitchell, in the time of Richard Nixon . I was also a campaign assistant. This woman was well known in her time for her unstable personality, frequent outbursts of tone and for a presumable problem with drinking.

Martha Mitchell also denounced on numerous occasions different irregularities produced by the administration, including corruption and alleged espionage. However, their allegations were ignored when they were considered to have delusions or other problems due to a mental illness.

Time later, the scandal of the Watergate case would come to light . All the people who had humiliated Martha trying to stigmatize her with the weight of mental illness had made a clear mistake. While some of the irregularities he mentioned were not proven, many of the corruptions that had been taken by delusions or even by attempts to attract attention turned out to have a real basis.

Why is it produced?

The reasons why the Martha Mitchell effect occurs are mainly its resemblance to delusions: the facts reported are implausible and often refer to aspects difficult to evaluate objectively.

Further, it is more likely that this diagnostic error will be reached if the person in question has certain characteristics that make it more likely that it is a delirious perception or interpretation of reality.

For example, a person with a psychotic disorder already diagnosed, an individual who has previously had delusions, a subject with a histrionic personality or someone who is addicted to substances with hallucinogenic effects. These are aspects that favor that in principle harmless facts can be processed in a distorted manner.


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